The border between the United States and Canada is the largest unpatrolled
border in the world. The friendly relationship that has existed between the two
countries for most of the past two centuries has allowed these thousands of
miles to remain free of the fences, ditches, and other barriers erected between
other countries, including the United States and Mexico.
Since the time of earliest settlement, people have been able to move back and
forth across this border freely. No records were kept of people crossing the
borders in either direction until the late eighteenth century. By this time,
massive waves of immigrants were coming to the United States from Europe. Many
of these individuals came through Canada before coming to the States, especially
those coming from the British Isles. There were two major reasons for immigrants
to take this route.
Canada was and continues to be part of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
At that time people living in Canada were subjects of the British monarch. Thus
those emigrating from Scotland, England, and Ireland were not really leaving the
country when they came to Canada. The second reason for immigrating to Canada
first was because of the immigrant quota system. Severe restrictions were placed
on the number of individuals who could enter the United States from Europe.
There were relatively few restrictions on those coming from Canada however. Thus
there was incentive for immigrants to go to Canada first, then move on to the
In 1891 the United States Congress overhauled the system of tracking
immigration to this country. Among other things they required the keeping of
certain information on passenger lists. They also created the Bureau of
Immigration, which today is known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
As part of this overhaul, the Bureau of Immigration asked the government of
Canada to allow U.S. Commissioners of Immigration to be stationed in Canadian
ports such as Halifax, Montréal, Québec, and Vancouver.
Border crossing stations had been set up across the entire border by 1895 and
Canadian shipping and rail companies had agreed to keep manifests of all
passengers. U.S. agents were allowed to examine incoming passengers in Canadian
ports. The first U.S. immigration inspector was originally stationed in
Montréal. By 1895 he had relocated to St. Albans, Vermont. Thus the entire
record series is commonly known as the "St. Albans Passenger Lists" or the "St.
Albans Border Crossings."
The records of these border crossings from 1895 to 1954 are available from
the National Archives and Records Administration in several series:
Manifests of Passengers Arriving in the St. Albans, Vermont District through
Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895-1954 (608 reels)
Manifests of Passengers Arriving in the St. Albans, Vermont, District through
Canadian Pacific Ports, 1929-1949 (25 reels)
Soundex Index to Canadian Border Entries through the St. Albans, Vermont,
District, 1895-1924 (400 reels)
Alphabetical Index to Canadian Border Entries through Small Ports in Vermont,
1895-1924 (6 reels)
Soundex Index to Entries into the St. Albans, Vermont, District through
Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1924-1952 (98 reels)
Card Manifests (Alphabetical) of Individuals Entering through the Port of
Detroit, Michigan, 1906-1954 (117 reels)
This series of films is an invaluable aid if your family was involved in the
massive migration from Europe through Canada into the U.S., or if your ancestors
were French-Canadians or other long-time inhabitants who moved to the United
States at the same time. These films are available at the National Archives in
Washington, DC, many of the regional branches, LDS Family History Library, the
New England Historic Genealogical Society, and many other major repositories
throughout the country. Don't overlook this resource, even if it appears it is
the wrong time frame for your ancestors!
These lists are valuable even for people whose ancestors crossed the border
prior to 1895. How? If immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1870s or 1880s and
left family behind in Canada, they may have gone back to visit after 1895. In
that event, they would be captured in the border crossing lists when they were
returning to their homes in the U.S.
The Soundex records through 1924 have a box in the upper right hand corner
titled "Serial No." In this space there should be three numbers recorded. This
is the volume number, the page number, and the line number for the entry of a
particular person. For example, the card for Josephine (Lavallee) LeClerc shows
that she entered the United States on October 30, 1919. The numbers recorded are
517-47-13. Turning to page 47 in volume 517 finds her entry recorded on line
number 13. The manifests are filmed by volume number. The page numbers are
stamped in the lower left-hand corner of each sheet. Remember that it sometimes
took up to three frames to film an entire sheet. The number will only appear in
the corner of the actual sheet, not in the corner of each frame.
Ship passenger lists usually included several different manifests for each
ship, with different information being recorded for several different groups of
people. For example, The S.S. Montcalm arrived in St. John, New
Brunswick, February 7, 1926. The first manifest, list A, included all aliens who
had sailed from the port of Greenock January 30, 1926. The second manifest was a
list of United States citizens sailing from Liverpool on January 29.Next is a
list of aliens sailing from Liverpool. The next list included aliens sailing
from the port of Belfast on January 30. The last manifest included more aliens
sailing from Greenock.
As can be seen from the above example, it is important to note from the card
whether or not the person crossing the border was a United States citizen. The
place of birth is not the determinate. If an individual had been naturalized,
they would be listed on the manifest of United States citizens even if they had
been born in another country.
The Soundex cards contain almost as much information as the original record
itself. For example, the Soundex card for Onésime Leclerc, who entered the U.S.
in 1919 contains the following information:
Place of Birth
So. Durham, Canada
Last Permanent Residence
So Durham, Can.
Name and Address of nearest relative or friend in country from which alien
Fr. Olivier, So. Durham, Que.
Ever to US
Passage Paid By
Destination, and name and complete address of relative or friend to join
Providence, RI Uncle A. Leclerc, 6 Alma Street
Ever arrested and departed or excluded from admission
Purpose in coming and time remaining
Head tax status
5ft 6 in
The actual manifest contains all of the above information. It also includes
the following information:
Able to read what language
Whether having a ticket to final destination
Whether alien intends to return to country whence came after engaging
temporarily in laboring pursuits in US
Whether alien intends to become a citizen of the US
Ever in an almshouse, or institution for care and treatment of the insane or
supported by charity
Whether a polygamist
Whether an anarchist
Whether a person who believes in or advocates the overthrow by force or
violence the Government of the United States
Whether coming by reason of any offer, solicitation, promise, or agreement
expressed or implied, to labor in the United States
Condition of health, mental and physical
Deformed or crippled
Date of Examination
Let's take a look at the significant genealogical information included here.
A physical description including height and coloration, his exact place of
birth; the name of his father and the place his father was living in 1919; the
name of his uncle with his uncle's address; and the fact that he had decided to
immigrate to the United States permanently.
After 1924 the land crossings no longer kept a long-form manifest. A manifest
card system was used to track these crossings. The cards are filed with the
cards indexing the passenger lists for ships, which continue to be recorded. I
found my grandfather Joseph Ruel crossing into the United States through the
port of Newport, Vermont, with his wife Yvonne and their five children: Roger,
Simonne, Renaud, Yvette, and Marie Reine on March 19, 1926. There was a
cross-reference card for his wife and each of the children that referred me back
to the card for Joseph. In addition to the information above, there was a
citation on the back of the card indicating his alien registration number,
AR2911043. Using this number I can request a copy of his alien registration file
from the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Freedom of Information
Act. Another citation indicates that his alien registration and date of
immigration were verified in 1941.
The information maintained on manifest lists continued to change as the
twentieth century wore on. In addition, a new kind of manifest starts to appear
in the last years of the lists. By the 1940s and 1950s air travel was becoming
commonplace. The airlines were also required to keep manifests. The manifest for
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Flight KL656 in March of 1954 lists the names of the
crew members and their nationality. The plane departed Orly, France March 18 and
Shannon, Ireland, March 19. It also departed from Montreal the same day and
landed in Chicago, Illinois, the same day. The names of the ten passengers on
the plane are recorded, along with the number of pieces of luggage and the
weight of that luggage.
The St. Albans border crossing lists are invaluable sources of information
for those researching both U.S. and Canadian ancestors. If your ancestor
immigrated to this country, they may have returned home for a visit and be
recorded. If your ancestors are from Canada, they may appear on the lists when
they go to visit a family member who had immigrated to the U.S. They are well
worth the effort it takes to use them, despite their drawbacks.